George Eliot’s Middlemarch was ranked number one in the BBC’s 2015 list of the greatest British novels.[1] Six in the top ten were novels by women, which is pleasing to note this week of International Women’s Day, but George Eliot sits atop the throne as the greatest female author to come out of Britain. George Eliot’s fiction continues to engage readers in the twenty-first century, and many people (myself among them) feel that in addition to Middlemarch’s success, Eliot’s other novels deserve more recognition. So who exactly was George Eliot? This, her chosen nom de plume, was in fact one of many names she had throughout her life; a fascinating life I will attempt to lay out for you here in a fashion more engaging than you’ll find on Wikipedia.

George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819, in the town of Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and was the third child of Robert & Christiana Evans. Her father was the much respected land agent to the aristocratic Newdegate family at Arbury Hall. Christiana gave birth to twin sons fourteen months after Mary Ann was born, but they died shortly after birth. She never fully recovered and died of breast cancer when Mary Ann was sixteen years old, forcing Mary Ann to leave formal education to return home to be her father’s housekeeper.  We know very little about Mary Ann’s relationship with her mother. Maybe Christiana had found it hard to love this last, plain child, for Mary Ann’s face was never going to be her fortune.  She was born with her father’s heavy features – his large nose, long chin and prominent jaw. She felt her lack of beauty keenly as she grew up; but she was loved by her father who was proud of his clever daughter and made sure she had tutors long after she had left school. She also adored her older brother Isaac, and the relationship between her and her sibling is at the heart of the semi-autobiographical The Mill on the Floss – this novel is where I suggest you start if you are new to George Eliot.

On one level George Eliot’s life falls neatly into two halves: for the first thirty years, her home was in the Midlands. The rest of her life – she died in 1880 when she was sixty-one – was spent in London making her living as a journalist and then later as a novelist and poet, becoming the most famous, and wealthiest, female writer of her day. Her personal life however was far from neat. At every stage she seemed to be swimming against the tide. Her father and brother were conservative churchmen; in her teens, influenced by an evangelical teacher, she horrified them by becoming fanatically puritanical. In 1841 when her father Robert, retired, they moved from their rural farm to Coventry and had radicals, dissenters and intellectuals for neighbours. Within a few months she had renounced her faith and upset Robert by refusing to go to church with him.

When her father died in 1849 she moved to London leaving her rural past and remaining family behind. Her desire was to become a journalist and she began renting a room at 142 Strand in the publisher John Chapman’s home. Chapman had published her translation of Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu in 1846 – one of the most influential books of the century – and had shown great interest in her academic talents. It was here that Marian, as she now called herself, came into contact with many of the leading writers, scientists, and thinkers of the day. It must have been a thrilling time for her, not least because, despite her own felt ugliness, her feelings for men were being reciprocated. It is very likely that she had an affair with John Chapman – who already had a wife and another mistress (his children’s nanny) in his love nest at 142.

It was meeting George Henry Lewes that was to change her life for ever. He was a man of many talents: a published author (his biography of Goethe has never gone out of print), a playwright, a novelist, and a scientist with particular interest in the emerging field of Psychology. As for his personality, he was great fun too: a raconteur and wit, full of jokes and pranks. He was already married at the time, but the situation was rather complicated. Lewes and his wife had been part of a free love community, and they had had three sons, but his wife had had several more children with Lewes’s best friend, and fellow editor, Thornton Hunt.  This had tested the marriage, which had broken down by the time Lewes met Marian Evans (later George Eliot). But Lewes was never able to marry Marian because he had put his name to the Hunt children’s birth certificates and in the eyes of the Victorian divorce laws he appeared to condone his wife’s adultery.

Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes thus moved in together unmarried and stayed together for 24 years until his death in 1878. Lewes was influential in the creation of George Eliot the author: it was he who first urged his partner to try her hand at fiction.  However, the double standards of Victorian England meant that whereas Lewes continued to be invited to literary dinners, Marian was not included in the invitation.  She was considered a fallen woman for living “in sin” with a married man. In Nuneaton, her brother Isaac cut off all links with her and urged the family not to communicate with her, something he kept up for almost twenty-seven years, although her older sister Chrissie did correspond with her.

In light of all this, it is no wonder that Marian suffered with migraines and depression throughout her life, but as a result of these struggles she gave us novels that show men and women going against the tide, against received opinion, against society’s dictates. Her novels were that rarest of beasts: instant successes. Her first novel was Scenes of Clerical Life, which was in fact three novellas based on people and situations back home in Nuneaton.  Her second novel Adam Bede, published at the beginning of 1859, was rapidly translated into French, German, Dutch, Russian and Hungarian, outselling Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Choosing the pen name George Eliot, she went on to write poetry and more best-selling novels, usually returning in her novels to the landscape of her youth. Middlemarch was a phenomenal success. In New England, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin “What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?”[2] For a modern take on Middlemarch I would urge you to read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

George Henry Lewes died in 1878; George Eliot was inconsolable.  But with the support of friends and her step-son Charles Lewes and his family, in 1880 she married a man twenty years younger: her accountant and old family friend John Cross.  George Eliot was legal and out of “sin” at last. Her brother in Nuneaton must have seen things this way, for he finally wrote to her. But this new happiness did not last long as later that year George Eliot died. But as the BBC’s selection of Britain’s greatest novels makes clear, her work and reputation has lived on. With her characterisation, humour, wit and wisdom she was compared in her day to that other relatively well known writer from Warwickshire: “The Female Shakespeare”. The gloss has not worn off over time and if you’re yet to dip into The Mill on The Floss or explore the town of Middlemarch, I highly recommend that you do.

[1] Jane Ciabattari, “The 100 Greatest British Novels”, BBC 7th December 2015.

[2] Richard Benson Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, (Harvard University Press, 1994), 669.